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Precious Time

Oct 21, 2022

The following story ran in the Fall 2022 edition of Bruin Blue Magazine.

By Jon Gold

Limping around his grandfather's funeral in July 2020, his knee in tatters and his heart in even worse shape, Tucker Lepley was already experiencing a deeper pain than anyone there could imagine.
Yet every time he was stopped — "Are you OK? How bad is it? How long are you out?" — he winced a little more. At the time, he didn't know if his ACL was torn or still intact.

Not that it mattered much, anyway. He'd just lost his best friend, after spending so many months away from him.

"It was," he said, "the worst week of my life."
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In some ways, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic was a mixed blessing for Lepley.

He'd spent the previous two years of his life — his childhood — almost 1,000 miles away from his hometown of Charlotte living with a host family in Kansas City while training with Sporting Club KC's academy.

Since the age of 10, people had been telling Lepley he'd grow into a professional soccer player, and he had the passport stamps to back it up. Tournaments in Spain and in Belgium, in England and the Netherlands, not to mention all over the United States. He was the first American selected for trial by Unión Esportiva Cornellà, a Spanish soccer team based in Cornellà de Llobregat in the Catalonia region of Spain, but because of international player rules he was unable to get registered.

After his first two years in high school, playing for the Charlotte Soccer Academy, Lepley craved higher competition. Spain was out of the picture. He chose Kansas City, went on trial with the club and was offered a spot. He left Charlotte to live with strangers in the Midwest.

Lepley's was a freshman All-American in his first season in Westwood (Photo: Scott Chandler)

With Kansas City, he played in 10 professional games with Sporting KC II — the club's United Soccer League based reserve team — making his pro debut at 16 while keeping college eligibility. While playing on the academy team and mixing in training with the first team, Lepley shined in showcases, drawing the attention of college recruiters, including UCLA head coach Ryan Jorden.

Jorden remembers seeing Lepley in person for the first time in 2018 when he was 16 years old.

"I saw him and I thought he was the most interesting footballer in the entire academy," he said. "He's not a big guy, but his technical quality, his desire, his drive to win and compete is all there, along with a great soccer mind. His feel for the way the game should be played, his ability to solve problems, and to attack. You've got to have technical and athletic abilities, but the feel for it is what distinguishes great players."

Lepley's recruiting was easy.

"I trained on a Tuesday afternoon, flew to LA, landed Tuesday night, met coach, went to bed, got breakfast, saw campus, talked about the game and flew home Wednesday night," Lepley said. "I saw everything I needed to see. UCLA is a school you can't say no to."

Added Jorden: "The scouting networks of these clubs are getting broader, the identification of these players is getting better, and they're getting to train year-round to help stimulate their thinking and thought processes. Tucker is a great example of a kid who didn't have a pro club and went halfway across the country to a team that invested in what they saw in him."

In March 2020, almost two years after he left home, the COVID-19 pandemic forced Sporting KC to shut down and send its academy players home.

Lepley would have a chance to recapture some of his lost youth, playing soccer with his friends from home as he trained to begin his UCLA career. Most importantly, he'd get to spend some time with his best friend. Precious time, it would turn out.
 
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James "Casey" Hoover Glasscock is his name. Why do we say "was" when someone passes? For Lepley, his grandfather remains eternal.

Glasscock was born in 1933 in Bu­ffalo Springs, Va., a fine athlete, just like his grandson. Only he excelled in baseball. Glasscock was going to play for North Carolina State before he was called into duty by the United States Army. To understand him a little better: After he retired from a career in banking, Glasscock volunteered more than 6,000 hours at a local hospital.

And though his army service ended his playing career, it did not end his cheering career. He was a loyal baseball fan the rest of his life, and an avid NASCAR follower. Living just up the road from the birthplace of NASCAR, it made sense.

 

Lepley (left) with his Grandfather James "Casey" Glasscock

Soccer was not one of his passions. That is, until seeing his grandson play. One of Lepley's career highlights was traveling back to Charlotte for a game against Charlotte FC and getting a chance to play a professional game in front of his grandfather.
"Growing up, I remember him telling my dad, 'Tucker needs to play baseball,'" Lepley said. "But he told my Dad after the game, I guess Tucker is pretty good at this soccer thing."

When his parents divorced — his mother a teacher, his father working downtown — Lepley spent extra time with Glasscock, who picked him up for school and got him dinner.

"Vienna sausages," Lepley said. "We'd have Vienna sausages with crackers and a Coke."

Back home for the first time in what felt like ages, Lepley was so excited to have Vienna sausages once more.

But on July 17, 2020, Glasscock passed away at the age of 87.

Lepley was heartbroken. Glasscock was his grandfather, but also his friend and confidant.

Thankfully, Lepley was home when it happened, surrounded by his oldest, closest friends. The night before Glasscock's funeral, Lepley went to the fields with some friends to get his mind off­ things. Dribbling the ball, Lepley went to do a move, but when he planted, his foot got stuck in the turf.

"I felt a pain I'd never felt and I knew," he said. "This isn't a normal injury."

To his knee, and to his heart.

 "That's why I remember the day it happened," Lepley said.
- - -

Lepley let himself wallow in self-pity for, oh, about a minute.

He wasn't about to let his first major injury rob him of his passion for the game.

"When I first got hurt, there was a realization that set in like, 'Wow, I'm going to be away from the game for longer than I've ever been," Lepley said. "I won't be able to touch a ball for what, eight months? Twelve months? That was hard to swallow. I've given everything to the game, and to have it taken away, I became really appreciative of it."

For an active, excitable kid like Lepley, being sidelined was a drag, but he was at least at home, recuperating with help from his loved ones.

 "I am grateful my injury did happen at home," he said. "I was able to be surrounded by family, to have them take care of me, to have my friends around. The worst part of rehab is the very beginning – you almost feel like you're not capable of basic functions. My parents and my friends were there to keep my spirits going, play Xbox, whatever I could do to keep my mind off­ things."

The second he was given the go-ahead, though, Lepley committed to rehab with vigor. He started walking within a couple weeks, jogging at three months. Six weeks in a brace.

"I knew he was going to attack ACL reconstruction and recovery in the same way he attacked playing in the game," Jorden said. "I didn't have a concern about the trajectory of his recovery. He went after it and did it in about the fastest timeline it can happen. It didn't surprise me at all. It was fun watching the process of getting him confident in his physical capabilities again."

Lepley was forced to miss his true freshman season in 2020-21, utilizing a redshirt season.
Back at full strength entering the of Fall 2021, Lepley quickly proved his injury was a thing of the past, leading the Bruins in assists and points while being named Team MVP and freshman All-American.

His goal this season? Help UCLA to restore its former greatness.

"UCLA's soccer history is rich," Lepley said. "Pac-12 championships, four national titles. The last one was the year I was born, 2002. That's part of the vision I had with coach. Let's get this back to what it used to be. For my freshman year to win 11 games, that's a great start. If we don't win the Pac-12 this year, it's a letdown of a season. That's our baseline goal."

Lepley is plenty motivated for the season, but if he needs any more motivation, he just looks down.

"I have a tattoo of my grandfather's birthday on my forearm," he said. "I also have his funeral card in my wallet every day. He's always with me. After tearing my ACL, he passes away, it was like, where do I go from here? I said, get up, let's fight, that's all we've known. That's all he taught me. I fought and fought last year and I was blessed to make the all-freshman team, the all-region team.

"And now I'm hungry for more."